​Uber and 'Greyball' under fire from Portland

After the US Justice Department launches an investigation into the ride-hailing company, Oregon's best-known city also demands answers.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
3 min read
Uber is under investigation for its use of a secretive tool called Greyball.

Uber is under investigation for its use of a secretive tool called Greyball.


Portland, Oregon, is the latest city to go after Uber.

The city council unanimously voted on Wednesday to subpoena the ride-hailing company over the use of its secretive Greyball tool designed to thwart police, according to the Portland Business Journal. During its meeting, council members said they need more documents and records from Uber regarding Greyball.

"I have had ongoing concerns with Uber and other sharing economy platforms rolling into town flouting local laws and seeing what they can get away with and how far they can push local government," Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said, according to the Portland Business Journal. "I think it's time for us to show them how we can push."

Greyball is Uber's secretive software tool that the company started using in 2014 to evade authorities in cities where the service wasn't yet legal but drivers were still picking up riders. It collects in-app data to identify and target certain individuals, like law enforcement officers. If those people try to hail an Uber, the app will either show that no cars are available or a mock-up of the app showing Uber cars that don't actually exist.

Uber said in March that it halted the use of the tool, but it's still attracted the attention of federal law enforcement authorities. The US Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into Uber's Greyball last week. Lawmakers in Philadelphia and Austin said this week that they're working with the Justice Department in this investigation.

"This inquiry looks like another example of innovation outpacing legal developments," said Phil Bezanson, partner at the law firm Bracewell. "Uber's past practices appear aggressive, perhaps unsavory, but it remains to be seen whether the practices actually were unlawful."

Portland and Uber have been tussling over the Greyball issue for the last several weeks. On learning about Greyball through an expose in The New York Times, the city asked Uber to turn over all documents regarding the software. However, Portland wasn't happy with what Uber initially offered up, according to the Portland Business Journal.

For its part, Uber said it's fully cooperated with an investigation by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). Uber's general manager for Oregon, Bryce Bennet, said there were no indications in PBOT's report that the company tried to evade inspections or block customers once Uber was allowed to operate in Portland.

"We were forthcoming during the investigation and provided PBOT a thorough accounting of how the technology was used, which is what enabled investigators to reach that conclusion," Bennet said in an email. "We will review any appropriate request for information that we receive from the City of Portland."

Uber will have three days to respond once the city attorney issues the subpoena.

First published May 11, 11:29 a.m. PT.
Update, 5:00 p.m. PT: Adds comments from Bryce Bennet, Uber's general manager for Oregon, and Phil Bezanson, managing partner at the law firm Bracewell.

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